Ground-penetrating radar spies on wombat colonies

Researchers from the University of Adelaide have developed a method of non-invasively studying the inner workings of wombat warrens, with a little help from a specialist ground-penetrating radar. 

The research is part of a larger study into wombat conservation by PhD candidate Michael Swinbourne in the University’s School of Biological Sciences, who set out to test a new way of mapping wombat warrens.

The southern hairy-nosed wombat is the first of the country’s three wombat species to undergo monitoring in this way.

Despite their popularity across social media outlets, and their regal position as South Australia’s faunal emblem, very little is actually known about the burrowing habits of the southern-hairy nosed wombat.

It is hoped that the new method will not only shed some light on the mysterious creatures, but also help with monitoring the wombat population numbers.  

“A major problem we are grappling with is understanding just how many wombats there are and whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing,” Swinbourne explained. 

“At the moment we use satellite imagery to count the warrens and then use that information to estimate the numbers of wombats living inside. This method isn’t perfect because we don’t know much about how wombats share their warrens.” 

The use of a ground-penetrating radar means that researchers can map warrens built underneath thick layers of hard limestone, a rock type that occurs throughout much of the wombat’s natural habitat.

“The aim of this project was to map the extent of wombat warrens in different ground conditions; to gain a better understanding of the relationship between how they look on the outside and what goes on underneath,” Swinbourne said.

In South Australia, wombats are considered an agricultural pest because their burrowing activity can cause damage to farm infrastructure and equipment as well as crops. 

The ability to monitor wombat numbers in this way may offer a solution to the long-term challenge faced by wildlife conservationists, who aim to lessen the southern hairy-nosed wombat’s impact on agriculture while still conserving the population numbers.

Elsewhere in Australia the ability to track and monitor wombat population is also likely to come in handy. Last year, the University of Western Sydney called upon the wider community of New South Wales to track wombat health, following concerns over the rapid spread of sarcoptic mange disease among the southern hairy-nosed and bare-nosed wombat populations. 

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